Franca Rame, the Italian feminist who opened a three-performance run of her monologues at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater Tuesday night, is an arresting combination of Melina Mercouri and the cartoon artist R. Crumb.
She has an imposing presence and a lusty Mediterranean persona, complete with husky voice and a mass of strawberry blonde hair, but the words that come out of her mouth -- all in Italian but translated in handwritten surtitles shown on a large screen above her head -- conjure up the scatological Crumb, whose work usually manages to offend everyone, especially women.
It is not the content of what Rame has to say that reminds one of Crumb, but her earthy and graphically surreal treatment of subjects like abortion, childbirth, rape and love-making. She is direct and guileless about her views and announces -- through a congenial translator, Ron Jenkins -- which pieces are supposed to be funny and which are dramatic. Jenkins even came in for some teasing when he visibly blushed while translating a Rame riff on the names of female anatomical parts.
Several of these pieces were presented locally last year by Horizons Theatre, using a translation by Estelle Parsons. When I read them then, I had the same thoughts produced by seeing the author perform them -- that they concerned familiar stereotypes that may be part of feminist folklore, but are not particularly up to date.
The passive housewife of "A Woman Alone," wearing her fur-trimmed negligee and keeping herself company with blaring radios, no longer elicits much empathy; someone who believes she must remain a servile captive of a brutal husband is obviously a jerk. The over-burdened factory worker of "The Awakening," so exhausted by trying to handle job, child and housework with little help that she can't tell what day it is, is more compelling but no less predictable. And musing about what the world would be like if men could get pregnant, as the woman does in "We All Have the Same Story," has been superseded -- sort of -- by the recent announcement that scientists think they have figured out how that could happen.
Women today have more complex angers and pressures than the simple anti-male rhetoric Rame uses. All the men in her pieces are brutal, insensitive, lazy and constantly demanding sex. Maybe men are like that in Italy, but during the past decade women here have had a positive impact on male attitudes -- at least some of them. At times it appears Rame's primary attraction may not be in the content of any specific monologue, but in the still culturally discomfiting experience of hearing an attractive woman talk dirty.
Still, she is a forceful and charismatic performer, one who immediately establishes a relationship with the audience that is neither mortifying nor self-conscious. "Rape," a stream-of-consciousness account of an actual rape, taken from a court transcript, is the most affecting monologue. Her description of an attack by four men, clothes being cut off, being burned with cigarettes and slashed with a razor as she is being sexually assaulted, is chilling and enraging.
Rame has been an actress all her life, being the child of traveling performers, and she has been married for 35 years to the playwright Dario Fo, who holds the same stage on alternate nights. She is clearly a true artist and it will be interesting to see if she can plug into the present concerns of women as fully as she has into those of the recent past.
It's All Bed, Board and Church, written by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, translation by Ron Jenkins. Directed by Fo. Performed by Rame. At the Free Theater in the Kennedy Center Thursday and Saturday.